In the Fourth Week of Advent my Czech friend gave to me… six beautiful handmade biscuits. At first glance they appear to be a daintier kind of Jammy Dodger – a delicate little jam and shortbread sandwich that would look quite at home in Alice’s Wonderland – but a little research reveals that they are in fact a special type of biscuit called Linecké Cukroví traditionally eaten in the Czech Republic at Christmas time. Katka assures me that the ones her mother makes are better, but I think these are perfect and very yummy indeed with a cup of coffee.
The vivid colour and translucency of the jam reminded me of stained glass, and glass-making too belongs to a tradition of Czech craftsmanship dating back to at least the thirteenth century when it was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia. It’s also the home of a medieval king long distinguished for his charity at Christmas: Good King Wenceslas, or Vaclav the Good as he is known in Central Europe. The English carol about him taking food to peasants is very new-fangled, but like Britain’s King Arthur it is said that if the Republic is ever in peril his statue in Wenceslaus Square will come to life and lead an army to victory with a legendary sword, bringing peace to the land.
With this in mind, it didn’t take me long to find a spiritual significance for the Linecké Cukroví. In one of the most famous passages of the New Testament St Paul talks about life in this world as an existence in which we only ever apprehend the real nature of things dimly, as if through a glass. ‘For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known…’ This note of longing to know more fully and see better than we do at present is also a guiding theme of the ‘O’ Antiphons which the Catholic and Anglican church pray during this last week of Advent. Today’s Antiphon ‘O Oriens’ speaks of the longing of those walking in darkness looking for the light to come, and tomorrow’s ‘O Rex Gentium’ of the longing for the coming of the king of all nations and the peace he brings: a good sentence for the closing of Advent and these lovely Christmas gifts.
Take a virtual tour of the stained glass in St Vitus Cathedral, where Wenceslas I is buried.
Music-making was a large part of Christmas celebrations in the Middle Ages. This beautiful Bohemian nativity scene is tucked away in a Cistercian book of liturgical music (image via Switzerland’s Central Library in Lucerne).
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